Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2021 Cycle B
by Rev. Jose Maria Cortes, F.S.C.E., Chaplain,
Saint John Paul II National Shrine
Sunday Reading Meditations
The first time that I went to the Holy Land, one of the places that impressed me the most was Gethsemane, the Garden of Olives. It was very moving to be in the place where Jesus agonized before his Passion, the garden where Jesus sweated blood and felt mortal anguish. The altar of the church was built over big stones, at the place where Jesus lived the most dramatic moments of his life. Around the church are olive trees, some of which are so old that they could have witnessed Jesus’ agony.
The place impressed me because it was Jesus’ place of prayer, suffering and decision. It was there that Jesus made the most important decision of his life. It was there that he decided to give himself for us. Gethsemane is a place where we can understand how human Jesus was.
As we are approaching Easter, the readings help us enter more profoundly into Jesus’ drama. The first reading says: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant […]” (Jer 31:31). The Gospel reading tells us that the hour is coming for the Son of Man to be glorified (cf. Jn 12:23).
In the Gospel, we find Jesus in Jerusalem surrounded by a crowd of people. He had just made a triumphal entry into the city. People want to see him. Some Greek foreigners ask the disciples to introduce them to Jesus. When Philip and Andrew come to Jesus with this petition, he starts to explain his mission. He uses the image of a grain of wheat that has to die in order to produce fruit. At a certain point, Jesus realizes that his death is imminent and says: “I am troubled now” (Jn 12:27). The same experience that he would have in Gethsemane happens at this moment: “Yet what should I say? Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12:27–28). In the second reading, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7).
We can understand how hard it was for Jesus to accept the Father’s will. What happened in Jerusalem was in anticipation of what would happen in the Garden of Olives. However, in Jerusalem he heard the Father’s voice: “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again’” (Jn 12:28). In Gethsemane, there would be no voice coming from heaven. There would only be silence and no crowd. Jesus would be alone. The three apostles would be sleeping. Jesus would be completely abandoned.
In 1977, Cardinal Wojtyla preached at the Lenten retreat of Pope Paul VI. In one of the mediations, commenting on the carelessness of the three apostles during Jesus’ agony, he said: “Jesus asked them sadly, ‘Could you not watch one hour with Me?’ […] a reproach of concern to every disciple of Christ. In one way the Church still hears these same words: the reproach addressed to the three apostles is accepted by the Church as if it were addressed to herself, and she tries to fill the gap left by that lost hour when Jesus remained completely alone in Gethsemane. […] And now the Church still seeks to recover that hour in Gethsemane—the hour lost by Peter, James and John—so as to compensate for the Master’s lack of companionship which increased his soul’s suffering” (Sign of Contradiction, p. 151).
I should like to conclude with one question: what is our daily contribution to the recovery of the hour lost in the Garden of Olives?